The Massachusetts Appeals Court today affirmed the conviction of a Waltham man who was caught removing smoke detectors from an apartment building (without first obtaining a permit) and throwing them away. The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Grafton.
The defendant was a resident at a three-story apartment complex in Waltham that contained seven bedrooms (and operated as a rooming house). The defendant and the owner of the building were at odds, and there were eviction proceedings pending against the defendant. In July of 2015, the building’s property manager arrived at the building to address a resident’s complaint about a leaky toilet. As the property manager drove into the building’s parking lot, he saw the defendant walking toward a trash barrel while holding a large grocery bag. The property manager could see fire extinguishers and smoke detectors inside the bag. When the defendant saw the property manager, he quickly walked to the trash barrel and threw his bag inside. When the property manager attempted to speak to the defendant, he walked away. The property manager looked inside the bag that had been discarded by the defendant and saw two fire extinguishers and two smoke detectors that he had previously installed in the apartment building. A Waltham District Court jury convicted the defendant of unlawfully (without a license) disconnecting and removing the devices and he appealed.
The issue on appeal was whether the Commonwealth was required to prove in its case in chief that the defendant did not have a license to remove the fire detection equipment, or that the defendant was required to prove he did have a license as an affirmative defense to the charge. The Appeals Court ultimately concluded the lack of a license was not an element required to be proven by the Commonwealth.
An affirmative defense does not challenge the elements of the offense that are proven by the prosecutor – instead it offers a legal justification for engaging in what would otherwise be illegal conduct. Evidence of an affirmative defense is typically readily available to the defendant, and it is fair to rely on him to present it. Once the defendant presents evidence of an affirmative defense, it is then the Commonwealth’s burden to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defense does not exist. The Appeals Court compared the facts of this case to firearms cases, where defendants have the burden of proving they are properly licensed to carry an otherwise illegal gun. On the other hand, in cases involving regulatory motor vehicle offenses (such as when defendants are charged with driving with a suspended license or without insurance), the burden is on the Commonwealth to prove the lack of license (or insurance) during its case in chief. In cases involving motor vehicle infractions, it is relatively simple for the Registry of Motor Vehicles to provide the necessary documentation to the prosecutor to establish a violation of the law.
The defendant’s argument was not helped by the fact that he never claimed to have obtained a license. His defense at trial was that he had nothing to do with the removal of the fire detection equipment.